With the arrest of 23-year-old Bernard Hunt Wednesday, a painful chapter closed in the tragic shooting death of Villa Rica jewelry store owner Mitch Mobley.
All five suspects in the June 26 robbery gone wrong have now been arrested, and each has been denied bond, meaning they will remain in jail at least until their trials begin.
For most of them, time behind bars won’t be a new experience.
The five suspects, Hunt, Cranford Phelps, Gregory Clifton, Raphael Rucker and Eric Billings, range in age between 16 and 23.
And according to online jail records, they have a combined 30 arrests.
After driving to Mobley Company Jewelers in one vehicle, the group allegedly entered the store just after noon on June 26, wielding hammers and guns in hopes to commit a robbery. In the process, Mobley confronted the group and was shot. He died on the scene.
In the scramble to run away, 16-year-old Billings was left behind and arrested on the scene. Rucker was arrested the next day and Clifton was brought in the day after that, June 28. Phelps was booked July 2, with Hunt becoming the final arrest on July 17. All five hail from the Atlanta area.
Billings, a minor, had no previous arrests, but had been released from the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice just five days before Mobley’s death.
Rucker has 11 arrests, the most of the group. He was first arrested in 2007 on several counts, including two charges of aggravated assault, one count of assault with a deadly weapon and one count of armed robbery. After spending more than three years in jail, Rucker was released on Dec. 29, 2010. He was then arrested in May 2011, twice in April 2012, twice in August of the same year, once each in November and December, once in April 2013 and again on June 5. He was released June 8, a mere 18 days before the Mobley shooting.
Clifton, 20, was first arrested July 8, 2009 for giving a false date of birth and prowling. He was then arrested Sept. 19 of the same year. Clifton was again booked Jan. 17, 2011 on simple battery, Aug. 22, 2012, for burglary with intent to commit theft and Feb. 8 of this year on two counts burglary and one count of criminal damage to property. The Mobley arrest was his sixth.
Phelps’ most recent arrest before the Mobley incident was in February 2013. Prior to that, he was arrested twice in 2010, in May of 2011 and February 2012. The 20-year-old’s charges include possession of a weapon on school grounds, giving false information to police, possession of crack cocaine, burglary, cruelty to children and trafficking heroin.
Hunt, 23, also has six arrests in his history. After being arrested twice in 2006, he was arrested in 2007 for burglary, criminal damage to property and aggravated assault. Hunt was incarcerated in Hancock State Prison in 2009 for an aggravated assault charge, among others, and was in prison until April of this year. He was also arrested June 5 in Fulton County and charged with possession of marijuana and a possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
With the suspects’ long records coming to light, many now wonder why they were out on the streets in the first place.
“That’s unacceptable,” Hillary Teal wrote in one of many Facebook comments debating the issue. “What do you have to do to actually go to prison?”
Both Hunt and Rucker were arrested June 5 of this year on the same charges and were released three days later. The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office could not confirm that the two were each arrested at the same scene, but District Attorney Paul Howard did release a statement regarding Rucker.
“On June 5, 2013 at 9:31 p.m., the FCDA’s Complaint Room received the case in question from the Atlanta Police Department’s Narcotics Team Three,” said Howard. “Upon receipt, the case was carefully analyzed by three assistant district attorneys including the Deputy District Attorney in charge of Complaint Room operations. What they found was that a search warrant had been executed at 827 Drummond Street for marijuana and items related to the sale of such drugs.
“Upon execution of the warrant, the police discovered seven subjects inside the residence and eight ounces of marijuana in the home’s crawl space. Even though all seven subjects were arrested, only Tekiel Mitchell’s identification was found in the residence. After an interview with the principal officer in this matter, neither the assistant district attorneys nor the police could identify any evidence specifically linking Raphael Rucker to the drugs found by the police. Because mere presence at the scene of a crime is not sufficient to sustain a criminal arrest, Rucker’s case was declined by the DA’s Office.”
There may be significance to the fact that most of the arrests were in Fulton County, which has faced sharp criticism for its criminal justice system.
Fulton’s local jail has been under a federal consent order since 2006 for a litany of issues, including more than 1,000 outdated locks that can easily be picked.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has repeatedly criticized the county government and the jail, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Fulton County judges treat criminals “with more respect than they treat law-abiding citizens” and calling the facility a “turnstile jail.”
In the same story, Fulton Judge Cynthia Wright said part of the blame lies with Atlanta Police Department officers who have failed to appear in court and prosecutors who filed unprovable charges.
According to a memo from the APD, some recently convicted criminals in Fulton had between 40 and 63 prior arrests. The same memo said on APD unit made 209 arrests that turned into convictions between April 2011 and March 2013. Of those, just six resulted in prison sentences. Most of the rest, 183, resulted in probation or some other court-ordered adjudication rather than prison time.
Fulton County and the City of Atlanta have continued to feud over how they should work together on jails. Atlanta’s city jail has more than 700 empty beds, but the two sides haven’t been able to agree on an acceptable rental price. Fulton County has spent $53.4 million renting beds in other jails, party because its own jail has a mandate to keep no more than 2,500 inmates at a time.
Some of the Mobley suspects did serve prison time for up to three years, but were arrested again within months of their release.
Recidivism, or the tendency to relapse into previous behavior, remains a problem across the state of Georgia. Governor Nathan Deal said during his second state of the state address that nearly one in three who leave Georgia’s prisons are re-convicted within three years.
Peggy Walker, a Douglas County juvenile court judge and now president-elect of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said that middle school, when children turn away from parents and toward peers, is a crucial time in a person’s development.
“When peer relations are negative, the parent must break the bond and establish positive peers,” she said, speaking generally and not on this case in particular. “Success in school, extracurricular activities, scouting and church groups allow for positive peer relationships.”
Walker has also said that children do things in groups they would never do as individuals, and when parents do a good job of supervising their children there is much less initial court involvement or recidivism.
“Those without supervision will be back, those who skip school will return,” she said. “Most research suggest that if you do nothing, about 50 percent of juvenile offenders return.”
According to the Pew Center on the states, 43 percent of prisoners who were released in 2004 were back behind bars by 2007. In 2012, the Georgia General Assembly passed a criminal justice reform bill, aimed at reducing incarceration rates for non-violent offenders and establishing drug courts.
In the Mobley case, the long arrest records and prior convictions lead some to question whether the tragic outcome could have been prevented.
“All this could’ve been prevented if we had judges that would do their jobs,” Cheryl Walker wrote in another social media post. “All these guys would’ve still been in jail and Mr. Mobley would be alive today to enjoy his life and family. Just makes me sick, the criminals get all the breaks it seems.”
If convicted in the Mobley murder, none of the five suspects are likely to get out of prison for a very long time. Each has been charged with murder and armed robbery. Billings, who will be tried as an adult, also has been charged with possession of a firearm in the commission of a crime.
In Georgia, a murder conviction carries a maximum sentence of life without parole. Armed robbery carries a minimum 10-year sentence and maximum of life in prison.